Gobi Desert

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July 9th 2010
Published: July 17th 2010
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The Gobi desert, said to have one of the harshest environments in the world, and the most extreme temperature differences. It has been a home to nomads for countless centuries. Jaakko, Alex and myself began recruiting others to join our group to the Gobi a few days before departing while still in Ulaan Baatar. We were staying at UB Guesthouse, a nice place inside a crummy apartment block, and worked out a deal with Kim, a Korean dude who owned the joint, renting a soviet jeep and a driver, along with some camping and cooking equipment, for a week long adventure. Kim gave us a good price for it all, he was always jovial and insistent on giving us constant high fives. We first found Mike, a big Ozzie guy who was already keen on checking out the Gobi, and had a penchant for throwing stones every which way. Then Raz came along, a guy from the UK, on a short stint through China and Mongolia. Finally after looking for a bit for the last person for the group, we found Julien, a short and stocky Romanian dude, whom we quickly nicknamed Polanski. Polanski was a total oddball, loved to talk and tell bad jokes, and be a bit of a weirdo, nevertheless he was entertaining by his own right, even when he mostly didn't intend to do so. Again for this trip we endeavored to do all the cooking ourselves, and went to the market to stock up and get all the supplies needed.

A few days later and we were off! Our soviet jeep was quite spacious and man could that thing rip across the landscape. Our driver was called Tume, an older fellow, good natured and friendly, a jack of all trades but with very limited English. We drove a good while that first day, with Alex initially hung over and hurling out the window of the passenger seat to the sound of copious honking from other vehicles while we were still on the way out of the city. Then Polanski went on a vocal tangent, talking mainly about pre-1989 Romania and horse carts. Towards the end of the day we stopped at a rocky cliff sight and then Polanski found a fallen tree and convinced us we should bring some of the wood along for a fire in the evening. We began by smashing the giant log into some rocks, breaking it down a bit, and then brought the remainder to the jeep where Tume loaded it up on top. The camp site wasn't far off, near some gers in the middle of nowhere, set up camp, and made a pasta dinner but realized we didn't have a big enough pot and had to do several rounds to get enough food, much to our chagrin. Then we got the fire going. I thought I was a pyromaniac but it turned out Polanski had a true obsession with burning stuff, and in true Romanian fashion, used some of the reserve diesel we had in the jeep to really get it glowing!

Day two was filled with more driving, but we figured out that Tume had one of those cassettes that we could run our Ipods through. First Alex played some of his funky stuff and then I took shotgun and for a few hours DJ'ed loads of classic rock tunes. The environment was visually changing and getting much drier. We stopped to view some rocky dunes and saw loads of camels roaming the land, we got up and close to some, really weird creatures. After stopping by some remote shop, we continued for a while before arriving at yet another ger outpost for the night, again set up camp and cooked, this time making some really good soy tofu. We kicked around a soccer ball for a bit, and a little girl in a dress joined in and admittedly had a powerful kick to her. We didn't have anymore firewood, not much to be found in the desert, save for Polanski who hoarded two sizable chunks, and with the help of some diesel, got them burning for a bit. This attracted some of the locals to us, one who was worried the winds would blow the embers to his ger and burn it down, but they were cool. Polanski even managed to get us some leftover booze from them, making a nice snack. Alex and Jaakko wore their newly bought dels for the occasion.

The next morning Mike kept grilling me about my snoring during the night, since we shared a tent. He was telling me he had to keep shoving me off my back, where I made my weird snore sounds, to my side where I'd mysteriously stop. Of course I would eventually get on my back and begin anew and he'd
have to push me over again. At least it's not loud enough that I wake up! We packed up and stopped by a well to get water, not to drink but to clean with, we called it camel water. While in the jeep we all discussed traveling for a while, everyone in this group has traveled extensively, way more than I have, it was nice hearing the stories. We eventually arrived at a town called Dalanzadgad, in the southern Mongolian Gobi, a real shithole of a town, like most in Mongolia. Everyone got a bit frustrated because we had only been driving for three hours and we told Tume we wanted to continue on. Tume didn't seem very happy about leaving and we realized he wanted to stay the night there because his family resided in the town. Tume invited us into his ger. A shitty version of the movie avatar was playing on the small TV. Soon after Tume's wife enters carrying a giant pot, and a sickening stench filled the air. She opened it and inside we saw a large piece of steamed mutton carcass. Tume and his family then began cutting into it and feasting - on all the parts! It was quite a sight, they offered some to us and I immediately declined as the smell alone was making me gag. Polanski had a few pieces and actually seemed to enjoy it, while Mike had a piece of intestine and his eyes watered bad. This was a true Mongolian meal! We left soon after and camped in a small valley that night, retiring early because there was nothing to do and it was cold out.

The following day we trekked an ice gorge. Since sunlight can't properly reach the gorge, the ice and snow never truly melt, although there wasn't too much when we were there. Probably would have been more impressive if we had got there a month or two ago. From there we drove towards the dune sea of the Gobi, another six hours west. Outside of certain towns, there are never actually roads in Mongolia, only patches of dirt that have been repeatedly driven over by numerous vehicles. Tume would drive along and then go off in some direction through the steppe, and somehow converge back along another of those paths. He must have been doing this for some time, as he knew the land well. Our vehicle consumed about 20L of petrol per 100 km, very expensive and probably where most of our cash went, but not many vehicles could deal with this type of terrain. We arrived at the base of some sand dunes by dusk. The wind howled unyieldingly, and we opted to stay in a ger for the night. It was a good break from a tent and way more fun to cook inside, shielded from the wind. In the evening Polanski was telling us about how he smuggled a large turtle from Greece back into Romania for his kids during a family holiday and we were in stitches. Mike caught a hedgehog outside and Polanski tried to lasso it with his flashlight wire.

We rose, ate something quickly and walked towards the dunes and began climbing. It was about ten, but still way too late as the sun was already scorching. Walking up sand is no easy feat either and we hada long ways to go. We all huffed making our way, sweating and burning our feet, and we all made it up, even Polanski who had it real tough. From the top was a glorious view and cooling breeze. There's something extremely peaceful about being in a desert. Polanski walked without a shirt, hairy gut showing, and we called him Polanski of Arabia. The absolute highlight of this whole Gobi trip though had to be our way down from the dunes. We began running down at full speed, and bounding because the sand was so soft. I felt like a superhero, able to jump so high at some points. We all yelled and it sounded like war cries. Within a half hour we were on our way from the dunes, eventually stopping at Tume's brothers place, where they made us homemade noodles for lunch. We continued on, listening to Horse With No Name by America and singing along. By the evening we reached some swanky tourist ger camp. Of course we weren't going to stay at a place like that, and instead camped right outside it. While crossing a stream though, the jeep sank in mud and we all had to get out and push. The tires almost sank entirely in. Tume put the vehicle on four wheel drive but to no avail. Finally we got another jeep to tow us out and we were free. That night after cooking and setting up camp, we all headed towards the posh tourist camp, climbed the fence and sneaked inside. Once inside we ordered some brewskies and had all the complementary tea we could drink. The reason we were there to begin with was that a few amongst us wanted to watch the Spain vs Germany world cup match. This place had a giant plasma TV and was showing the match for it's "guests". Good ol' Tume getting us to a place we could watch the match in style! We played cards there beforehand, then watched the game until its conclusion at 4:30 AM and it was decent.

The next morning everyone was awoken by rain. My tent was secure but the other two were turning to swimming pools. We scrambled, packed up and were on the road again by 8:30. We dozed off in the car for a while, later stopping to dry off our camping gear and grab a bite in a small town we went through. Soon after we stopped to see a site called the flaming cliffs, deep crimson rock that looked amazing and contrasted the rest of the environment so well. We then continued on, this time stopping at a some person's ger Tume knew and were served snacks and Airag; which is fermented horse milk that can get you drunk if you have enough of it. The main issue we had was to make it to the town of Kharkorin for the Naadam festival on the 9th. We were originally supposed to head back to UB after the trip, but cut a deal with Tume to get us there instead, and he delivered. We made it to the town by the evening and decided on one more night of camping. We found this picturesque valley, about a km outside of town and had our final evening in style with good camping food (last of our supplies), beautiful location, good dessert (Alex and I made fritzers with the flower we had bought, deep fried them, then laced them with sugar), and of course a giant fire with a bit of diesel thrown in for added fun!

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